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Dave’s 2006 Oscar Preview: Small, Cheap, and Completely Under Control

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This year we see the rise of independent films, which seems to happen every decade or so. But first, the only four Oscar categories with nominees you might actually recognize in person …

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams – Junebug
Catherine Keener – Capote
Frances McDormand – North Country
Rachel Weisz – The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams – Brokeback Mountain

WILL WIN: Rachel Weisz
SHOULD WIN: Amy Adams

This is practically anybody’s race. Ironically, the three leaders are the newcomers, Weisz, Adams, and Williams. Adams has the advantage of the most critics circle wins and a BFCA tie with Williams. She also has the ingenue thing (but so does Williams). Williams also has the cache of being associated with the film favored to take home the gold, and the best post-Dawson’s Creek track record of anyone on that show.

But Weisz has a few things working in her favor. She’s got momentum from both the Golden Globes and the SAG awards. Many more people have seen her movie than Adams’. Williams’ flick is getting its kudos elsewhere, so here’s a place for Gardener fans to show their love (Weisz has pretty much become the face of the film as Fiennes and Meirelles have gone un-nominated, for the most part, this awards season). Finally, and this is a cheap shot, she’s visibly pregnant. That didn’t help Annette Bening during her American Beauty run, but she was up for Best Actress against Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and nobody was coming back from that.

Plus, Weisz is the odds-on favorite at 4/9 over Williams at 5/1 and Adams at 7/1.

Of the performances I’ve seen here (all but McDormand’s), Adams brings the most depth and range to her portrayal. It could easily degenerate into a stereotype of a young Southern woman, and I’ll credit the writing here as well with defying that, but Adams creates the most memorable character. And given that Harper freakin’ Lee is in the running, that’s saying a lot.

By the way, does anyone else feel bad for Anne Hathaway? She’s the only one in the Brokeback quartet to lack awards season love. Not a single nod. And it’s not like she doesn’t do any heavy lifting. Her phone conversation with Heath near the end is one of the most memorable scenes in a movie full of memorable scenes. Let’s just hope she’ll kick ass in The Devil Wears Prada.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

George Clooney – Syriana
Matt Dillon – Crash
Paul Giamatti – Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal – Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt – A History of Violence

WILL WIN: Paul Giamatti
SHOULD WIN: George Clooney

Oscar has a very short or very long memory depending upon the timing. “Remember how awesome Jack Palance was in Shane? Let’s give him an award for City Slickers!” Or, “Didn’t we just give Tom Hanks an award for a better performance last year?” “Uh, I don’t know.” So, it stands to reason that Oscar could look to reconcile its slight of Giamatti’s far more impressive turn in Sideways by giving him a statue here. At least, that’s the popular theory. SAG seems to agree, even though they didn’t slight him in the least last year, when, just like everybody else, he was awarded the honor of losing to Jamie Foxx. Everybody Loves Clooney is also a popular sitcom right now,to the tune of a Golden Globe and unprecedented Directing/Writing/Acting nods, so that’s probably why he’s the next favorite, odds-wise. But it’s Giamatti with the even odds, and I’m inclined to agree.

Dillon could also benefit from Academy memory, but Giamatti first.

And don’t count out Gyllenhaal, who pulled a BAFTA out of his ass last week. If Academy members want to see a Brokeback sweep, it’s not that difficult to pull off. I think whatever degree of Brokeback-lash pundits (and Crash PR people) are predicting will manifest itself in Brokeback not winning every single award, as opposed to losing, well, we’ll get there.

Giamatti was certainly serviceable in Cinderella Man, but he didn’t leave the indelible print of Clooney in Syriana or Dillon in Crash. As I’ve described before, these are studies in menace and vulnerability, both pulled off admirably. And maybe it’s the unfair advantage of a more spectacular role (Dillon doesn’t get to order anybody to drug a guy and put him in a car and crash a truck into that car at 50mph), but Clooney’s menace (and decline) is a just a bit more convincing. Honestly, though, I’d be happy either way.

BEST ACTRESS

Judi Dench – Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman – Transamerica
Keira Knightley – Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron – North Country
Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line

WILL WIN: Reese Witherspoon
SHOULD WIN: Reese Witherspoon

I don’t know why this has happened, but Reese Witherspoon, playing someone without any noticeable ailments or androgyny has a far better shot at winning an Academy Award than Felicity Huffman, who plays a man becoming a woman. Now, in the laws of the Oscar universe, it shouldn’t matter that Walk the Line has made 38 times as much money as Transamerica (and that’s before DVD). Hilary Swank took down Annette Bening with Boys Don’t Cry, which had made $23 million to American Beauty‘s $108 million by the time the awards were announced. Both Transamerica and Walk the Line received solid reviews. Both performances nabbed a Golden Globe (Witherspoon for Comedy/Musical, Huffman for Drama). But in the end, Reese also nabbed the BFCA, the BAFTA, and the SAG award, not to mention twice as many critics circle awards. What goes on?

Best I can figure, a couple of things. One, a major head start for Walk the Line, which is already out on DVD. The power of Reese’s performance was stamped in most people’s memory before they had a chance to see Transamerica, if they did at all. Secondly, although both films got good reviews, Walk the Line’s are noticeably better. And, truth be told, it’s a better film, but more on that in a minute. Finally, and this is pure conjecture, Huffman’s a TV star, Reese is a film star. Sounds tough, but there it is.

Although Huffman’s performance is outstanding, it begs the question of which is harder, giving a good performance in an okay film, or giving a great performance in a great film? Witherspoon is given far better raw material to work with, and is in the milieu of a better directed film. You could also argue that giving a performance that rivals that of your co-star’s Oscar-nominated performance suggests a difficulty level that mitigates the whole “I had better dialogue” thing. Ultimately, though, I just thought Reese gave the better performance, and this is coming from a Sports Night-era Huffman enthusiast.

BEST ACTOR

Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote
Terrence Howard – Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix – Walk the Line
David Strathairn – Good Night, and Good Luck

WILL WIN: Philip Seymour Hoffman
SHOULD WIN: Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I saw Capote back in September I said to myself “That’s a just-give-him-the-Oscar-now performance.” Apparently, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, BFCA, SAG, and no less than 19 critics circles agreed. Now Joaquin Phoenix got the other Golden Globe, but that’s not helping. If anyone presents a challenge, it’s Heath Ledger. He got his share of nods and critics circle wins, but ultimately, this is a slam dunk on almost a Jamie Foxx level. Like that performance it’s one in which the performer disappears completely.

And that’s why he should win. I think that may be the hardest thing to do. All of these performances are strong (well, I’ve seen Strathairn in roles with a good deal more range) but none of them requires the transformation you see in Capote. And, near the end, to break through that shell after he’s pretty much gotten us to hate his guts and show a hint of what emotion he might actually have about what he’s done and for the people involved without going all Afterschool Special on us is another achievement altogether.

Here’s a query. Who would win in a Capote/Ray showdown?

BEST DIRECTOR

George Clooney – Good Night, and Good Luck
Paul Haggis – Crash
Ang Lee – Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller – Capote
Steven Spielberg – Munich

WILL WIN: Ang Lee
SHOULD WIN: Steven Spielberg

If there is a lock at the Oscars this year, it’s this. (Actually, there are many locks, but it’s more exciting to pretend). Ang Lee is walking out of there with a Best Director statue. He’s got a DGA award, which already puts him at 90% for the win, plus the Golden Globe, BAFTA, BFCA, and craploads of critics circles awards. Really, his closest competition wasn’t even nominated. David Cronenberg got his share of critical love this awards season, just not from the Academy. Now, if you wanted to be superstitious (and unbelievably anal) you could point out that the next to most recent time the DGA disagreed with the Academy, it was over Ang Lee, who won the DGA award for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but lost the Oscar to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. But that’s just silly.

I know. Spielberg’s already won twice. And it’s Spielberg. Real film buffs are supposed to despise him on principle. Well, it ‘s true. I am an unabashed Spielberg fan. Even an apologist. But the fact of the matter remains that Munich is his Godfather, and that doesn’t happen very often. Click here for more of my Munich musings. Oh, and he shot it in, like, two weeks. There’s gotta be some award for that.

BEST PICTURE

Brokeback Mountain – Diana Ossana and James Schamus
Capote – Caroline Baron, William Vince, and Michael Ohoven
Crash – Paul Haggis and Cathy Schulman
Good Night, and Good Luck – Grant Heslov
Munich – Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, and Barry Mendel

WILL WIN: Brokeback Mountain
SHOULD WIN: Munich

If you’re wondering why everyone’s so sure Brokeback is gonna win, look at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, BFCA, and the Producer’s Guild (not to mention 15 or so critics circles). It ‘s just a question of critical (excuse the pun) mass. For a while there was a story that Brokeback broke too early and that Crash would sweep in but the sources on most of those stories tended to work for Lionsgate, Crash‘s distributor.

Brokeback Mountain is one of the best films of last year. But not the best. My favorite was Munich. A more complex story, more emotionally profound with deeper characterizations. As complex as Ennis Del Mar may be, he doesn’t hold a candle to the torture of Avner Kaufman. Now, comparing emotional carnage is probably unfair, but in terms of impact, Munich moved me more (and it’s not like Brokeback didn’t pack a punch).

All that having been said, I found Good Night, and Good Luck to be more intellectually satisfying than either, but what are you gonna do?

And now, the What Does It All Mean? portion of the preview…

A lot has been made, and justly so, of the indie, wild, small, cheap, and political nature of this year’s nomineees. A good point also gets made in these articles of the fact that only one of these “indpendent” films really comes from an independent studio, i.e., one not owned by a larger conglomerate. That would be Crash, distributed by Lionsgate. Still, most of these films are eligible for the $20 million budget cap placed on the Indie Spirit Awards nominees this year. In fact, three films (Brokeback, Capote, Good Night) are nominated for both awards’ Best Picture honor. Ultimately, though, I think this says less about either awards show than you might think. Let’s go ahead and crunch the numbers…

Movie/Studio/Cost (in millions)/Box Office (in millions)

Brokeback Mountain/Focus Features/$14/$72
Capote/Sony Pictures Classics/$7/$22
Crash/Lionsgate/$6.5/$56
Good Night, and Good Luck/Warner Independent Pictures/$7.5/$29.4
Munich/Universal/$75/$45

The irony here, of course, is that the one studio picture, which cost more than all of the other pictures combined (and then doubled!), made the next to least amount of money and is the only one to not show a profit. It would seem that the rise of the independent (or sort-of independent) picture is confirmed. Except for one thing:

1997.

See, nine years ago we faced a very similar set of circumstances. These were the Best Picture nominees…

The English Patient/Miramax/$27/$78
Fargo/Gramercy/$7/$24
Jerry Maguire/Columbia/$50/$153
Secrets and Lies/October Films/$4.5/$13
Shine/Fine Line/$5.5/$35

Although this batch isn’t nearly as political, I’d say what’s really changed in that time is companies. Gramercy, October, and Fine Line are all gone. Miramax is under very, very, very new management. Only Columbia (the major studio in the bunch) is still more or less intact (under Sony). By the same token, with the exception of Universal and Sony Pictures Classics, none of the companies behind this year’s crop existed back then (technically speaking, Lionsgate as we know it was founded in 1997, but all these films were shot before then). Finally, remember what happened to the Oscar race the following year, the year after the rise of the “independent” film? Those awards can be summed up in one word: Titanic. The most expensive (at that point) and highest-grossing (still) film of all time. Wonder what it’ll be next year.

This is the fourth part of the series: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

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About David Dylan Thomas